- Dog bite redirects here. For the song, see Dog Bite (song).
Dog attacks are attacks on humans by feral or domestic dogs. Dog attacks often occur because of the close proximity of dogs to people, and such attacks have become the focus of increasing media and public attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is estimated that two percent of the US population, 4.7 million people, are bitten each year. In the 1980s and 1990s the US averaged 17 fatalities per year, while in the 2000s this has increased to 26. There is much debate over whether the attacks can be blamed on the prevalence of certain breeds of dogs or whether they are due primarily to the actions or inactions of the dogs' owners.
Dogs are by default (after the clearing of larger or more dangerous predators) the most powerful predators other than humans in many parts of the world. They remain cunning, swift, agile, strong, territorial, and voracious despite domestication; even small ones have large, sharp teeth and claws and powerful muscles in their jaws and legs, and can inflict serious injuries. The lacerations even from inadvertent dog scratches, let alone deliberate or reckless bites, are easily infected. Large dogs can knock people down. To be sure, dogs are far more reliable than other predators of like size (for example, leopards and cougars smaller than some breeds of dogs) and most larger herbivores. Dogs and humans are usually clever enough to recognize the folly of potential threats to each other and avoid danger, recognizing humans as themselves similarly predatory, or have mutual affection that precludes attack.
Should affection or mutual respect not exist (as with feral dogs), should a dog be conditioned to become an attacker, or should someone intrude upon a dog's territory and pose a threat, then the natural tendencies of a predator manifest themselves in a dog attack in which the dog, like all other formidable predators, uses its predatory abilities to defend itself. Extrication from such an attack is difficult because of the dog's power and agility; it is then in charge of the situation.
Education for adults and children, animal training, selective breeding for temperament, and society's intolerance for dangerous animals combine to reduce the incidence of attacks and accidents involving humans and dogs. However, improperly managed confrontations can lead to severe injury from even the most well-tempered dog, much like most humans can be incited to violence given sufficient provocation.
There are many signs that a dog is about to attack, such as growling or snarling. Stiffened front legs and a raised ridge of hair along the spine are signs of an imminent attack. A wagging tail indicates an attempt to communicate excitement, but a territorial dog may hold its tail high and wag its tail as a signal of dominance. A highly disturbed dog may sometimes emit confusing or misleading signals, yelping or jumping. Some dogs are bred to not show any signs of aggression before they attack.
Human behavior as a factor
Many human behaviors (especially by people unfamiliar with dogs) may factor into bite situations. The majority of dogs won't respond to all or even any of these behaviors with aggression, however, some will. These behaviors include:
- Attempting to take food or water away from a dog, or moving towards a dog's food or water or between a dog and its food or water, even inadvertently. While possessiveness is a form of aggression and should be seen as a behavioral problem, this is an issue commonly overlooked by the owner, especially when it comes to small dogs.
- Attacking a dog or its companions (which could be other dogs, humans, or even cats), or acting in a manner that the dog perceives as an attack (for example, a sudden enthusiastic hug or inadvertently stepping on any portion of the dog's anatomy, such as a paw or tail).
- Startling a resting or sleeping dog.
- Approaching or touching a sick or injured dog. Note that older dogs, like people, often become "cranky" and develop a tendency to become "snappish".
- Related to the previous point, failure to recognize a dog showing signs of insecurity or fear and continuing whatever behavior is causing the dog's anxiety to increase, until "fear biting" occurs. Again, an older or chronically infirm dog is liable to develop feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, and therefore become less tolerant and more aggressive.
- Approaching dogs already fighting.
- Behaving in a threatening or menacing manner around a puppy in the presence of an adult dog, especially its mother.
- Staring at a dog directly in the eyes. In dog communication, this is an act of dominance or aggression. This is more dangerous when on the same visual level as the dog (such as small children), or when the human is unfamiliar to the dog.
- Running away from a dog: the atavistic chase-and-catch instinct is not fully lost, and most dogs can outrun and overtake the average human.
- Similarly, the natural instinct to jerk one's hands upwards away from an inquisitive dog often elicits in the dog a strong impulse to grab and hold, or at least to investigate, resulting in the dog jumping on the person and thrusting its head towards the raised hands.
- Ignoring "Beware of Dog" signs: trained attack dogs, unlike most dogs, may attack an intruder without warning.
- Entering a dog's "territory" and behaving in an unfamiliar pattern or being unfamiliar to the dog. The dog's territorialism, powerful senses, and latent ferocity makes almost any dog, irrespective of size, a powerful deterrent to burglars. The territory that a dog recognizes as its own may not coincide with the property lines that its owner and the legal authorities recognize, such as a portion of a neighbor's backyard.
Dog behavior as a factor
Many adoption agencies test for aggressive behavior in dogs, and euthanize an animal that shows certain types of aggression. This is not to imply that animals exhibiting signs of aggression cannot be worked with to correct these tendencies. A dog may exhibit multiple types of aggression.
- Dominance aggression is most commonly directed at family members (humans, other dogs, even cats) and can be a response to different types of touches, body language, eye contact, positioning (such as trying to move them off the couch or bed) - basically any type of behavior the animal sees as a challenge to its dominant social status.
- Fear aggression can come in a number of varieties but can most easily be paralleled to human problems as phobias. Speed of movement, noises, objects or specific gestures such as raising an arm or standing up may elicit a reaction. Many rescued dogs have been abused, and specific fears of men, women, even race are not uncommon.
- Protection/territorial aggression is most commonly associated with the dog's tendency to want to defend its home and family (humans, other dogs, even cats).
- Possession aggression is most commonly directed at perceived threats to food, water, and toys. In adoption agency tests this is usually the most important type of aggression to test for, since it is most associated with bites, especially bites to children. While it could be argued that this is a subset of either dominance behavior or protection/territorial behavior, its importance must not be overlooked.
- Predatory aggression is built on the dog's built-in hunter instinct. Sighthounds, for example, will chase and attack small, fast moving, animals. By itself, predatory aggression is rarely the cause of an attack on a human, although with very large dogs and very small children this is sometimes the case. In attacks against humans, when predatory aggression is involved it is often a contributing factor that escalates the situation, such as the pack kill instinct when multiple dogs are involved in an attack.
- Pain-induced aggression is a reaction to pain or discomfort brought on by a medical condition (i.e. injury or illness).
- Punishment-induced aggression is most often directed at a family member who goes severely overboard in a misdirected attempt to correct a behavior. While often read by the human eliciting the behavior as dominance aggression it is, in reality, more akin to a self defense instinct.
- Redirected aggression is when a dog, already excited/aroused by an aggressive instinct from another source uses an available target to release its aggression.
If a dog is abused or threatened, It will usually bite, like any other carnivore would do in aggression.
77% of dog bites are from a family or friend's pet, and 50% of attacks occur on the owner's property. It is important for parents to understand and teach their children about how to react to a dog attack.
Training and aggression
In a domestic situation, canine aggression is normally suppressed. Exceptions are if the dog is trained to attack, feels threatened, or is provoked. It is important to remember that dogs are predators by nature, instinct is something that never completely disappears, and that predatory behavior against other animals (such as chasing other animals) may train a dog or a pack of dogs to attack humans. It is possible to acclimatize a dog to common human situations in order to avoid adverse reactions by a pet. Dog experts advocate removal of a dog's food, startling a dog, and performing sudden movements in a controlled setting to teach the dog who its leader is, to defuse aggressive impulses in common situations. This also allows better animal care since owners may now remove an article directly from a dog's mouth or transport a wounded pet to seek medical attention.
Small children are especially prone to being misunderstood by dogs, in part because their size and movements can be similar to prey. Also, young children may unintentionally provoke a dog (pulling on ears or tails is common, as is surprising a sleeping dog) because of their inexperience. Because of a dog's pack instincts, more dominant dogs may view children or even complacent adults as rivals rather than as superiors, and attempt to establish dominance by physical means. Any attempt at dominant behavior, no matter how tentative, should be firmly discouraged as soon as possible, to affirm to the dog that all humans are pack superiors. To avoid potential conflicts, even reliably well-behaved children and dogs should not be allowed to interact in the absence of adult supervision.
Dogs with strong chase instincts, especially shepherds, may fail to recognize a person as a being not to be herded. They may fixate on a specific aspect of the person, such as a fast-moving, brightly colored shoe, as a prey object. This is probably the cause for the majority of non-aggressive dogs chasing cyclists and runners. In these cases, if the individual stops, the dog often loses interest since the movement has stopped. This is not always the case, and aggressive or territorial dogs might take the opportunity to attack.
Additionally, most dogs who bark aggressively at strangers, particularly when not on "their" territory, will flee if the stranger challenges it. Conversely, there is always the danger of the occasional dog who will stand its ground and escalate the situation. Mailmen, being the classic example, provoke a strong territorial response because they come back day after day to the dog's territory. In the dog's mind they are constantly challenging them for territory and that sets up a learned behavior.
When dogs are near humans with whom they are familiar, they normally become less aggressive. This is because familiarity with their 'pack members' lowers the likelihood of attack. However, it should not be assumed that because a dog has been with humans, it will not attack anybody - even a family member. Caution needs to be taken when approaching new dogs for the first time.
There are studies that claim certain breeds are more likely to attack than others. In a study on dog bites, American and Canadian dog bite-related fatalities from September 1982 to November 2006 by Merritt Clifton titled Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada, cited that Pit Bulls were responsible for 65% of fatal dog attacks. Intact males also bite more frequently than females or neutered males.
Due to the pit bull-type breeds' perceived aggression, owning such an animal is not allowed in many European and Australasian countries and in several US and Canadian localities. Owners are usually fined and in some places there may be 2 month jail time, while the animals are put to sleep in most cases.
Dog attacks on humans that appear most often in the news are those that require the hospitalization of the victim or those in which the victim is killed. Dogs of all sizes have mauled and killed humans, although large dogs are capable of inflicting more damage quickly. The Pit Bull though, is ranked at the top of the list for severe dog bites that required hospital treatment or resulted in a fatality and far out of its proportion to its number. The Rottweiler is ranked a distant second.
It may be argued that Pit Bulls and certain other dog breeds are inherently aggressive towards humans and shouldn't be allowed at all, or that since the breed is so popular, these dogs are often owned by irresponsible owners who provide insufficient training or, worse, aggressiveness training. An opposing argument is that no breed is inherently aggressive towards humans and that regulating one breed simply moves the irresponsible owners to start focusing on breeds that haven't yet been regulated, moving the problem to other breeds. This is one of the positions taken by the AMVA.
It is difficult to establish the inherent human aggressiveness of a breed in general. To establish meaningful results, research would have to consider such factors as the following:
- Are the statistics available reliable for identifying specific breeds? In cases of bites from unfamiliar animals such as strays, the breed description can be inaccurate.
- What proportion of a breed's owners are knowledgeable about dog training? When a breed's popularity increases, it might be more likely to be the first choice among owners with no previous experience with dogs because it's a breed which they've heard of. Novice owners might not know how to properly socialize a dog.
- What proportion of owners deliberately encourage aggression in their dogs, or keep their dogs in a manner which fosters aggressive traits? This would be a difficult number to discover, because it seems likely that not many owners would readily admit to it. Also even though it may not be intended to train a dog to be aggressive, it is well documented that many dog owners do inadvertently allow a dog to think of itself as dominant.
- What proportion of dogs involved in acts of aggression against humans came from a known mother or father who exhibited such aggression? This can happen in any breed, and responsible breeders would generally not breed such a dog. However, as a breed's popularity increases, people who know nothing about breeding or genetics (or who don't care), might breed dogs who otherwise shouldn't be bred.
- What proportion of that breed in the community exhibits aggression against humans? Most statistics published show only the number of dogs of various breeds involved in attacks, not the percentage of dogs of that breed in the area who were involved in attacks. Any popular breed is more likely to show up with more attacks because there are simply more dogs, just as a less popular breed will show up as having a higher percentage of attacks because there are simply fewer dogs. The most popular dog breed in America (in 2007) is the Labrador Retriever
One approach which acknowledges that it is difficult to determine the dangerousness of a specific breed takes the strategy of regulating all dogs over a certain size or weight, which would greatly reduce the chance of a dog being large enough to inflict serious harm. This, of course, would remove from circulation most of the hundreds of breeds available in the world today, most of which would never deliberately harm a human.
Although research and analysis suggests that breed-specific legislation is not completely effective in preventing dog attacks, with each new attack, pressure mounts to enact such legislation, despite indications that dangerous dog legislation would be more effective—that is, focusing on specific individual dogs having exhibited signs of aggression.
Legal issues (United States)
Although using a firearm against an attacking dog may seem acceptable, laws in the United States which prohibit discharging a firearm in a city, and reckless endangerment
may limit the extent to which a person is legally able to defend themselves in this way. Taking such actions where the dog/dogs involved were not acting aggressively towards humans may result in legal charges against the person who shot the animal. Laws vary from state to state and from city municipalities to counties.
Some state laws hold dog owners liable for the harm or damage that their animal causes to people or other dogs. For example, in recent years, Florida dog bite laws have been changed so that prior vicious tendencies may no longer be needed to prove owner liability. In Texas, as of September 1, 2007, `Lillian's Law' has taken effect, whereby the owner of a dog that causes death or serious bodily injury may be charged with a second or third degree felony when the attack takes place outside the dog's normal place of confinement (Texas Health & Safety Code Chapter 882).
In California, owners are subject to massive civil liability for attacks by their dogs. The state allows a victim to sue on two strict liability causes of action arising out of a single attack—one created by statute and one arising from common law. In 1989, the California State Legislature enacted a special administrative hearing procedure just for regulating "menacing dogs," based on the finding that "dangerous and vicious dogs have become a serious and widespread threat to the safety and welfare of citizens of this state. To help implement it, the Judicial Council of California promulgated a package of four forms in 1990. The notice of hearing bears the warning: "DO NOT BRING THE DOG TO THE HEARING.
- Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998, Jeffrey J. Sacks, MD, MPH; Leslie Sinclair, DVM; Julie Gilchrist, MD; Gail C. Golab, PhD, DVM; Randall Lockwood, PhD. JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000.
- World Almanac and Book of Facts 1985. Doubleday.
- World Almanac and Book of Facts 1988. World Almanac Books.
- Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States Linda S. Weiss, Michigan State University - Detroit College of Law (2001). Animal Legal and Historical Web Center
- "Nonfatal Dog Bite--Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments", CDC MMWR, July 4, 2003.
- Dog Owner Liability, Legal Center For The Injured (2007)
- Rover's Law - Megan's Law for Bad Dogs
- Dogs Bite but Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous by Janis Bradley, 2005
- Dog Aggressive Behaviors